Courts Uphold Discrimination Finding in Employee Nickname Case

July 25, 2005 ( - An engineering firm executive who insisted on calling an Arabic employee by American names - over the man's objections - committed employment discrimination, an appeals court has ruled.

The US 9 th Circuit Court of Appeals, in upholding a lower court judge’s backing of a jury verdict, found that plaintiff Mamdouh El-Hakem had been discriminated against when the company chief executive insisted on calling him “Manny” or “Hank.”

As had US District Judge Anna Brown of the US District Court for the District of Oregon, the appeals judges upheld a jury verdict awarding him $15,000 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages for the intentional discrimination against him on the basis of his race by creating a hostile work environment. Jurors also awarded him $11,000 in wages due.

According to the appeals ruling, penned by Circuit Judge Johnnie Rawlinson, El-Hakem’s former employer, Greg Young, chief executive of Austin, Texas based BJY Inc., had insisted that giving El-Hakem a more Western name would make El-Hakem more commercially successful because it would be more agreeable to the firm’s clients.

In the appeals decision, Rawlinson turned away arguments by Young’s attorney that calling El-Hakem “Manny” was not a racial epithet and that the behavior wasn’t repeated enough times to be pervasive. “A group’s ethnic characteristics encompass more than its members’ skin color and physical traits. Names are often a proxy for race and ethnicity,” the appeals jurist wrote.

Concluded Rawlinson: “Young’s persistent reference to El-Hakem by a racially-motivated nickname supported the jury’s finding of discrimination.”

The appeals ruling is  here .